Monday, October 4, 2010

The Online Film Critics Society list of 100 Best First Films

The Online Film Critics Society today returned to compiling their Top 100 lists, their first since 2004. Their first list is their compilation of the top 100 debut films by directors. Needless to say, it's an interesting but arguable list.

The choice for the number 1 spot is rather obvious, since Citizen Kane is considered by many to be the number one film of all time, regardless of it being a debut film. The fact that it was Orson Welles' first picture makes it all the more impressive an accomplishment. But the rest of the list, however, includes some middling first films by well-known directors. For example, I liked Clerks as much as the next guy, but it isn't really all that exceptional. The list is also very Hollywood-centric with not enough foreign titles, with most of the foreign films mentioned coming from France. The list is heavily weighted to the last couple of decades. There are few women directors's films, and no Asian titles (e.g. where's Red Sorghum by Zhang Yimou?). Only two documentaries make the list.

Still, it's worth taking a look at what others consider to be important works. And some of the films mentioned are ones I haven't yet seen, so I'll be adding them to my viewing list. Others I haven't seen for a while, so this has piqued my interest to see them again too.

OFCS Top 100: 100 Best First Films

1. Citizen Kane (directed by Orson Welles)
“I started at the top and have been working my way down every since,” joked Orson Welles in the years following his startling debut feature. Citizen Kane has been so longed hailed as “the greatest film ever made” that it is in serious danger of becoming the least seen masterpiece around. The legends surrounding the film and its creator have too long overshadowed the actual film. Above all, Welles was a showman and Citizen Kane is a three ring circus of cinematic ingenuity, a startlingly entertaining blend of pulp melodrama, historical biography, detective story, political drama, storytelling confabulation, and plain old theatrical flourish. Years ahead of its time in its layered use of sound and score (a pioneering piece of dramatic composition by Bernard Herrmann, Welles’ radio collaborator), stunningly designed, and brilliantly shot by Gregg Toland with a creative invention that pushed the envelope of motion picture photography, Citizen Kane is a vital, exciting moment of American cinema brought back to life with every viewing. (Sean Axmaker)

2. Eraserhead (David Lynch)
David Lynch’s monochrome fever dream of frustrated desires and horrific unease was to be the last triumphant gasp of the Midnight Movie movement. Eluding easy definition or comfortable reception, Eraserhead was as much a phantasmagoria of tactile textures and immersive soundscapes as a nightmarish parable of fatherhood and the creative process. By turns beautiful, annoying, funny, exasperating and repellent, but always bristling with a nervous energy, Lynch’s debut merges the drab world and anxious subconscious of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), a vacationing printer who must stay home to nurse his monstrous (and unwanted) babe in bandages. Sporting an impossibly tall haircut that has become one of the film’s most iconic signifiers of otherness, Henry is one of cinema’s great misfits, his very appearance and physical stiffness embodying the discomfort that the film inspires in its viewers -- and yet Nance’s performance is a master class in tragicomic understatement, all minutely nuanced gestures and Tati-esque humanity. Beneath the amorphous surface of this unnerving filmic experience is an undiscovered planet of untold depths and hidden layers in which to become lost, sickened or sublimely elevated. (Anton Bitel)

3. Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero)
Simultaneously a sleeper cult hit and a candidate for arthouse exhibition, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead has become one of the most influential independent films ever made in the forty-plus years since it was originally unleashed. The “zombies” of Romero’s movie (a term never actually used in the movie) are not the reanimated/drugged servants of voodoo lore; they are, in fact, not the product of a mythology at all. They are simply the dead -- corpses that have risen and now shuffle around aimlessly, their only impulse an unexplained urge to eat the living. Against this backdrop of an unexplained and incomprehensible menace, Romero places several average citizens trapped together in an isolated farmhouse and lets the human drama commence. Hysteria, frayed nerves, and an unspoken contest for Alpha Male supremacy keep the living from ever marshaling their forces effectively against the undead outside. At the time of its release, Night of the Living Dead was interpreted as a metaphor for the Vietnam War, microcosm of the breakdown of social order between generations and races in the middle of the Counterculture Revolution, and a critique of the reliance on authority figures for understanding and purpose. It can be all of those things, and it can be reinterpreted and resignified by current audiences two generations unborn when it was first released, but first and foremost it is a dark, relentless, and scary piece of cinema. (Nathan Shumate)

4. The Maltese Falcon (John Huston)
Unpromising project: young but already seasoned studio serf John Huston, desperate to make the difficult career leap from screenwriting to directing, takes on a pulpy property that’s already been filmed twice in the past decade with a low budget and lower expectations. Unlikely result: Huston’s rock-solid classical technique, exact casting, and carefully transcribed screenplay, lay the groundwork for a film that works with the drive and efficiency of a Formula One engine, even managing the unthinkable task of giving Citizen Kane a run for its money as the best debut film of 1941. Huston’s long, variable career would rarely see his pet themes and ironic romanticism as tautly conveyed as in this chamber-piece proto-noir. Humphrey Bogart’s incarnation of seamy, but honourable, private eye Sam Spade cemented him as a star, and Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Mary Astor backed him up with some of the finest character acting on record. (Roderick Heath)

5. Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard)
Breathless, the feature debut of Jean-Luc Godard, is an early film of the French New Wave. The film tells the story of Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a roguish petty criminal who crosses a line when he shoots a police officer after stealing a car. On the run from police, Michel seeks out his American student girlfriend, Patricia (Jean Sebring); Patricia hides him for a while, planning an escape with Michel to Italy, before betraying him to police. Breathless is notable for its visual style; shot on a handheld camera with mostly natural lighting, Godard intended the film to evoke a documentary feel, and the use of the handheld camera allowed for spontaneity in the shooting of the film. Breathless is most known for Godard’s groundbreaking use of editing jump cuts throughout the film, which broke all established rules of continuity editing that were prevalent at the time. Breathless today is seen as the cornerstone of New Wave, and has influenced countless filmmakers. (Kim Voynar)

6. Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino)
Reservoir Dogs was the gritty, engaging, and exhilarating debut film of a 29-year-old self-educated former video store clerk, and the result was a cinematic revolution. Soon to be a household name, Quentin Tarantino produced an imminently imitable ballet of macho posturing, gun-pointing, and creative deployment of verbal obscenity. With a testosterone level that is off every chart, it happily wallows in its own juvenile love of criminals and violence, but the film’s dexterity and complexity proved Tarantino to be an extraordinary filmmaker right out of the gate -- his raw talent and an unmistakable understanding of film lore is embedded in every frame. The film is a landmark in film debuts because, despite borrowing widely in terms of both plot elements and style, Tarantino made Reservoir Dogs wholly his. (James Kendrick)

7. The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton)
The great Charles Laughton delivered great performances in a number of great films. But he only directed one feature, which was -- well – flippin’ fantastic. Meditations on good versus evil don’t get more beautiful and chilling than The Night of the Hunter, in which two youngsters (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) are pursued by a phony preacher (Robert Mitchum) after their nogoodnik father’s money. Ostensibly a run-for-your-life thriller, The Night of the Hunter is at its finest in detailing how easy it is for the greatest terrors to slip by under the guise of virtue. Mitchum’s greed leads to a conclusion in which the forces of light and dark square off, a captivating cap-off to a spry and sneaky expressionist classic. (A.J. Hakari)

8. Blood Simple (Joel and Ethan Coen)
Just after Lawrence Kasdan and Bob Rafelson sexed-up classic noirs in the early 1980s -- with Body Heat and The Postman Always Rings Twice, respectively -- in Blood Simple the Coens took the latter narrative and turned it inside out. Instead of the discontent wife and lover successfully killing the husband (as in Postman), a seamy hitman (M. Emmet Walsh as Loren Visser), hired to off the adulterous couple, instead aims at the jealous man who hired him. When the body turns up not quite dead -- as the lover buries this evidence -- he gets his own shot, and a comedy of (t)errors follows. Though fate fueled the descent of classic noirs, in the Coens' paranoia runs off absurdist misdirection. A true reassessment of noir, Blood Simple moves beyond the pre-erotic-thriller (not so)neo-noirs. Further proof: the freshness of Zhang Yimou's 2009 remake, set in historical China. (Matthew Sorrento)

9. The 400 Blows (François Truffaut)
At age 27, François Truffaut kick-started the Nouvelle Vague movement with this gritty drama about feisty 12-year-old Antoine Doinel (an iconic character that actor Jean-Pierre Léaud would revisit five more times). The film's free-form structure is still exhilarating today, bristling with schoolboy exuberance and a darkly evocative sense of pre-teen yearning. By the time that unforgettable freeze-frame appears at the end, we know this movie has changed the way we look at the world. Just as it changed cinema itself. (Rich Cline)

10. 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet)
Twelve men arguing in a single room, in real time. It sounds like a play, because it was a play, and a television movie before that. But in the hands of the 34-year-old theater/TV veteran Lumet, 12 Angry Men became so intensely, thrilling cinematic, it’s hard to imagine it in any other medium. With a dazzling array of shots and visual perspectives that switch around with every bend in the drama, and anchored by a legendary collection of the best character actors the ’50s had to offer, the film that would arguably remain the pinnacle of Lumet’s career established him in one stroke as an unmatched master of both the camera and character. (Tim Brayton)

11. L’Atalante (Jean Vigo)
L'Atalante is, perhaps, considered by some, a dated film as far as its style goes. But there is no denying that it is still powerful viewing because of its magical poetical gestures to the subject of love and the refreshingly lyrical way it looks out at its surrounding seascape towns and at the human condition. Its romantic story is much like Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), of innocents from the country getting corrupted by the big lure of the city and then finding their true roots again. Because the story is such a simple one and the couple is so ordinary, it is not the story in itself that is exhilarating as much as the way the film moves us to look at our own lives with all its possibilities and disappointments. It makes us see things in a way that is disarmingly enchanting. That despite the daily grind of regular life, there is also a poetical and romantic mood waiting to be tapped. We are encouraged to look into our hearts and see what matters to us, just as Jean looked into the water for his missing bride and in a frazzled state saw an emanation of his bride and dove into the water to go after what he was looking for. Jean realized that the love he has inside him is manifested in his dreams, and sometimes our reality is merely an illusion. (Dennis Schwartz)

12. Toy Story (John Lasseter)
One of the traits one looks for in first features is the element of surprise that comes along with the freshness of a new filmmaker. John Lasseter, along with a handful of terrific writers (including Pete Docter and Andrew Stanton), brought on-screen a magical mixture of honest storytelling and compelling filmmaking, marking our hearts by reminding viewers of all ages of that wonderful time where kids actually held playtime heroes in their hands and their fantastical adventures were only limited by one’s own imagination, instead of their graphic cards’ capabilities and some programmer’s coding skills. Woody, Buzz and the rest of the gang, set the ground for a new, exciting way to look at animated films, not only as an art form, but also as a very lucrative business model, paving the way for that marvelous thing that became of Pixar: a powerhouse of modern animation that seems almost unable to miss both viewers’ souls and box office records. What more can you ask for from a film debut? (Joseph Proimakis)

13. Badlands (Terrence Malick)
Viewers familiar with Terrence Malick from his sprawling epics The Thin Red Line and The New World may be surprised to discover just how spare and economical his debut is. Badlands is still very recognizable as a Malick film, though, with the ruminative voiceover, striking imagery, unusual rhythms and inspired musical choices all being key elements of this startlingly impressive debut feature. Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek are magnificent as the casually amoral Kit and naïve schoolgirl Holly, a pair of lonely, bored youngsters whose aimless romance drifts towards multiple murders. This is a supremely confident debut from Malick, who handles the film with a sense of cool tranquility, allowing the story to wind down seemingly inconsequential avenues before the narrative is abruptly brought into sharp focus by sudden acts of violence. As ever, this director is as fascinated by the environments his characters inhabit as he is by the characters themselves, and the badlands Kit and Holly eventually stray into are captured with a stark beauty by the film's three credited cinematographers. Standing as one of the most distinctive and exciting debut films ever made and one of the great American films of the 70's, Malick's first masterpiece is essential viewing. (Phillip Concannon)

14. Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze)
Chalk it up pre-millennial madness. 1999 brought us the off-kilter debut of two talents who would be integral to 21st-century cinema. Television writer Charlie Kaufman and video director Spike Jonze combined puppetry, alternate realities, and a post-modern affection of their titular star to create Being John Malkovich, an oddball journey by one man into another man's mind. John Cusack stars as the confused individual who literally has access to John Malkovich's skull, and Cameron Diaz, nearly unrecognizable in wig and glasses, goes along as the sweetly nerdy love interest. The fact that Malkovich himself shows up just adds further fruity icing to the madness. Assured in its quirks, yet not just quirky for the sake of it, Being John Malkovich is a triumph of the intellectually odd and would give many who came after permission to let their freak flags fly. (Jamie S. Rich)

15. This Is Spinal Tap (Marty DiBergi; co-directed by Rob Reiner)
In 1984, a very special comedy arrived in cinemas and was overwhelmingly embraced by audiences. Made on a miniscule budget of only $4.5 million, it went on to gross approximately $146 million worldwide. It spent five weeks atop the U.S. box office and spawned six sequels. That film was Police Academy. A peculiar little fake-doco from comedian-cum-director Rob Reiner debuted in cinemas three weeks before Police Academy bowed... and went largely ignored. But here we are, twenty-six years later, and people aren’t dressing up like Larvell Jones and Carey Mahoney on Halloween. They’re dressing as the core members of the legendary metal band Spinal Tap: David St. Hubbins (named after the patron saint of quality footwear), Derek Smalls (notorious zucchini smuggler) and Nigel Tufnel (writer of the haunting piano solo “Lick My Love Pump”). This Is Spinal Tap -- full of unforgettable one-liners, offensively catchy songs and genuinely touching performances -- slowly but surely wormed its way into the public consciousness, kick-starting the mockumentary movement and making “11” a perfectly viable level of volume on future speaker systems. Although Reiner’s directorial career would not live up to the promise of his debut feature (Rumour Has It features more gut-churning moments than Videodrome), This Is Spinal Tap remains an unequivocally influential achievement in comedy. How much funnier could this film be? The answer is none. None more funnier. (Simon Miraudo)

16. Gates of Heaven (Errol Morris)
Errol Morris takes his camera around California and interviews various people involved in pet cemeteries. The first person we meet, Floyd McClure, opened his cemetery as his lifelong dream after his dog was killed; he saw his dream wither away when the cemetery went belly-up and more than 450 animal corpses had to be disinterred and moved. Morris moves on to Cal Harberts, who started his own cemetery with the animals left over from McClure’s land. We don’t get to know him as well as we do his two sons, Phil and Dan, who help run the cemetery. Phil is a former insurance salesman who’s listened to one too many motivational tapes. He seems to be psyching himself up to deal with the remainder of his dull life. Dan is a would-be rock musician who drags his amp outside and practices when nobody is around. The sound of his guitar riffs bouncing off the pet gravestones is incredibly sad and chilling. Did Morris set out to make a quirky documentary about what some would consider a trivial subject? He came back with an unforgettable mood piece about human loneliness, in which the mourned pets seem much more important than if they had been the movie’s true focus. (Rob Gonsalves)

17. Hiroshima mon amour (Alain Resnais)
Hiroshima mon amour broke all the rules, even those of the Nouvelle Vague, of which it formed the initial, ear-splitting cannonade a half-century ago. Director Alain Resnais was no upstart critic, but a talent who had been cutting his teeth on short films and documentaries for fifteen years. His feature debut was a close collaboration with established literary figure Marguerite Duras, whose personal blend of melancholic nostalgia, suppressed horror, and sickly sensuality provided the springboard for Resnais’ semi-experimental narrative. Cinematic time and space was suddenly in dynamic flux, and sexuality of a kind barely seen before in a mainstream movie only added to the shock of the new. East and West, unthinkable apocalypse and private tragedy, and the flesh of lovers are as closely entwined and yet forlornly alienated as Resnais’ syncopated sounds and images, in a display of technique as challenging as it is original, and yet it’s the emotional heart of the film that triumphs in cathartic epiphany. (Roderick Heath)

18. Airplane! (Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker)
Airplane! changed the face of cinema by inventing a genre that didn’t previously exist. It was a disaster movie by way of Mad magazine, with a healthy sprinkling of comic non sequiturs and sight gags added for seasoning. Using the 1957 B-movie Zero Hour as the template for their spoof, the ZAZ filmmaking team (consisting of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker) mercilessly ridiculed every cliché and convention imaginable in the disaster genre. They did it with a frantic, high-energy style unlike anything audiences had ever seen before. There was literally a joke of some sort every three seconds, and the film required multiple viewings because some of the best gags were in the background, where you’d initially miss them. There have been lots of other spoof movies in the thirty years since the release of Airplane! but none of them have ever matched its comedic brilliance. Today’s spoofs are particularly missing the point; they simply reference other, better movies, whereas Airplane! spoofed the structure of an entire genre. (Mike McGranaghan)

19. Duel (Steven Spielberg)
The inclusion of Duel on a list like this courts controversy because it famously made its 1971 debut on American television. But watch it some time and you may likely conclude that it doesn't feel at all like a TV movie from the ’70’s. This is because its wunderkind director, Steven Spielberg, shot it with a theatrical presentation in mind -- it even had additional scenes shot to pad it when its studio, Universal Studios, decided it could be released theatrically in Europe. That it did premiere overseas on the big screen before Spielberg’s next feature, The Sugarland Express, would arrive in U.S. theaters may make a convincing case to consider it his legitimate first feature film; but an even better argument emerges from just watching the movie itself. Duel is a tense, tightly controlled exercise in suspense -- not the cheap kind that demands someone jump out at the audience every five minutes, but a real sweat-inducing, hand-wringing, consistently anxious affair. Spielberg, with the sure hand of an expert, draws out the cat-and-mouse conflict between Dennis Weaver’s unlucky commuter and his unseen tractor-trailer-driving nemesis and keeps it alive, interesting, and inventively involving. The film bears the mechanical hallmarks of his future works -- his abilities to understand and manipulate audience sympathy and to effortlessly generate thrills, and his uncanny mastery of timing to elicit the strongest desired reactions. Spielberg would further hone and utilize this skillset with mega-successes such as Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park, but the first evidence of his auteurism can be justifiably located in Duel. (Jeffrey Chen)

20. The Iron Giant (Brad Bird)
Originally developed as a big screen take on Pete Townshend’s concept album The Iron Man (itself an adaptation of Ted Hughes’ book), The Iron Giant became something entirely different -- and entirely wondrous -- once Amazing Stories and Simpsons vet Brad Bird came aboard. Townshend’s songs were ditched; Bird relocated the setting to small town America at the height of the Cold War; screenwriter Tim McCanlies supplied the film’s central theme: “you are who you choose to be.” And in choosing to be the good guy instead of the villain, the Giant displays more humanity than most of the cowardly humans he encounters. His genuine goodness betrays his original war machine programming; his determination to “not be a gun” leads to an act of heroic selflessness which still resonates eleven years and countless viewings later. (David Cornelius)

21. The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi)
22. The Producers (Mel Brooks)
23. Knife in the Water (Roman Polanksi)
24. The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont)
25. The Kid (Charles Chaplin)
26. District 9 (Neill Blomkamp)
27. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones)
28. Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly)
29. L’Age d’Or (Luis Buñuel)
30. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman)
31. Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray)
32. Henry V (Kenneth Branagh)
33. Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper)
34. Clerks (Kevin Smith)
35. The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez)
36. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols)
37. Gattaca (Andrew Niccol)
38. Primer (Shane Carruth)
39. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (Tim Burton)
40. Brick (Rian Johnson)
41. Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett)
42. Sex, Lies, and Videotape (Steven Soderbergh)
43. Mad Max (George Miller)
44. Pi (Darren Aronofsky)
45. In Bruges (Martin McDonagh)
46. Harlan County U.S.A. (Barbara Kopple)
47. American Beauty (Sam Mendes)
48. Boyz N the Hood (John Singleton)
49. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell)
50. Delicatessen (Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
51. Elevator to the Gallows (aka Frantic) (Louis Malle)
52. Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson)
53. Titicut Follies (Frederick Wiseman)
54. She’s Gotta Have It (Spike Lee)
55. Shadows (John Cassavetes)
56. Moon (Duncan Jones)
57. Monsters Inc. (Pete Docter)
58. Slacker (Richard Linklater)
59. Say Anything... (Cameron Crowe)
60. Shallow Grave (Danny Boyle)
61. Closely Watched Trains (Jiri Menzel)
62. Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck)
63. Repo Man (Alex Cox)
64. The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola)
65. Amores Perros (Alejandro González Iñárritu)
66. On the Town (Stanley Donan and Gene Kelly)
67. The Triplets of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet)
68. Ivan’s Childhood (aka My Name Is Ivan) (Andrei Tarkovsky)
69. My Favorite Year (Richard Benjamin)
70. El Mariachi (Robert Rodriguez)
71. Performance (Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell)
72. In the Company of Men (Neil LaBute)
73. They Live By Night (Nicholas Ray)
74. Love Actually (Richard Curtis)
75. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling)
76. One-Eyed Jacks (Marlon Brando)
77. Hard Eight (Paul Thomas Anderson)
78. Following (Christopher Nolan)
79. Cabin in the Sky (Vincente Minnelli)
80. George Washington (David Gordon Green)
81. Blood of a Poet (Jean Cocteau)
82. The Station Agent (Thomas McCarthy)
83. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black)
84. Away from Her (Sarah Polley)
85. Thank You for Smoking (Jason Reitman)
86. The Orphanage (Juan Antonio Bayona)
87. Chicago (Rob Marshall)
88. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Judd Apatow)
89. Pleasantville (Gary Ross)
90. Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky)
91. Drugstore Cowboy (Gus Van Sant)
92. Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty)
93. Heathers (Michael Lehmann)
94. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (Guy Ritchie)
95. Strictly Ballroom (Baz Luhrmann)
96. Dances with Wolves (Kevin Costner)
97. The Falls (Peter Greenaway)
98. Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio)
99. Get Carter (Mike Hodges)
100. Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay)

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